Sunday, August 9, 2015
Our original concept for the stopover in Seoul was simple: we were using Korean Air, whose hub is in Seoul. Why not get off the airplane, break up the return flights so that we would not be so exhausted, and spend a day and night in Seoul? We probably should have thought a little harder about that “not being exhausted” part. On the day before, we had gotten up before dawn for our aborted sunrise Angkor Wat experience, and the day was busy after that. Our intent was to sleep on the overnight flight between Siem Reap and Seoul, but we did not get in the air until 11:25 PM. The flight was less than five hours in duration, hardly time to get a good night’s sleep. Then there was a two hour time difference between Siem Reap and Seoul, so while we hit the ground at 6:35 AM, it felt like 4:35 AM to us. Not our best plan.
The Koreans let you know right off the bat how the toilets are supposed to work in their modern city.
Another awesome sign that we saw but didn’t get a photograph of said, “Korean War Veterans, you will always be our heroes.”
In our bleary eyed state, we got into the wrong immigration line. By the time we discovered our rookie blunder, an entire planeload of Saudis had gotten in front of us in the foreigner line. Some of the ladies were wearing the full hijab, with nothing but their eyeballs peeking out. South Korean immigration was having none of that, of course, so each lady was having to discreetly uncover her face for the mandatory photo. It took so long that by the time we finally got through, our flight was not even listed on the bag carousel arrival board any more. We had to go to lost and found to collect our bags.
We met our guide, a lovely lady whose “western handle” was Inis, and began our tour immediately. She told us that our hotel would not be ready until mid-afternoon so we had some time to kill. Our itinerary had listed five different activities, but we knew right off the bat that this would be too ambitious. We asked her to explain them in more detail and we picked our top three.
The drive from Incheon Airport into the heart of Seoul took about an hour. Ines could see that we were fried, so she let us ride into town in silence. Genene put her head down and caught a few zzz’s. I think Greg and I did the same. We stopped first at a Starbucks-like coffee shop in the central city and got some strong coffee and pastries. We were surprised to find that English is not as commonly spoken here as it is in Thailand and Cambodia, but there was English on the posted menus. We were able to point at what we wanted and soon the caffeine was coursing through our veins. Even Genene got a cup of java.
Our first tourist stop was Cheongye Plaza, located at the starting point of the “restored” Cheonggyecheon Stream. The public space is actually an urban renewal project. After the Korean War, this area developed so rapidly that the original stream was covered up by transportation infrastructure. The government spent over $900 million to “rebuild” the dried-up stream, pumping water from the Han River up to the new headwater. The water flows back down to the Han, the ultimate in recycling. The project was very controversial when it opened in 2005 but has become a popular meeting place and recreational area for Korean people. It’s a bit like their version of Memorial Park, a place to stroll and run, to see and be seen.
22 bridges span the stream, and some of them are quite old. We walked underneath Gwangtonggyo Bridge, which was one of the most important and busiest bridges in Seoul during the Joseon Dynasty when markets could be found lining both sides. Construction of the bridge began in 1410 by King Taejong, who used the stones from the dismantled tomb of his stepmother Queen Sindeok. His disrespect of her tomb was intentional: he was repaying her for supporting her son–his half-brother– against King Taejong for the throne. King Taejong had her demoted posthumously from second wife to royal concubine. The stones with the visible carvings are from Queen Sindeok’s tomb.
Seoul is large and has a very modern feel, with its tall, metal skyscrapers. Over 10 million people live here. It makes Houston look like a quaint little village.
The Spring sculpture in the plaza put me in the mind of a seashell.
Our second stop was Gyeongbok Palace, where we were just in time to see the ceremonial changing of the guard. The palace was originally built by the first Yi Dynasty King, Taejo (circa 1395), and it served as a royal residence for nearly 200 years. Sadly, the original palace was destroyed by fire in the late 1500’s, and the area was abandoned until the 1800’s, when it was rebuilt. The Japanese came along in the early 20th century and wrecked it again, but the Koreans are gradually restoring the palace complex buildings to their original forms and locations.
There is no more monarchy, and South Korea is a constitutional republic, complete with three branches of government and a president. The guard changing ceremony is strictly ceremonial. It was colorful and beautiful on this fine morning.
This guy really made this shell sing!
The throne where the king would have sat when receiving guests at the palace.
The ceiling was painted ornately.
The dragon image was recessed into the ceiling in the middle of the palace. This dragon has seven claws, more than a Chinese imperial dragon. Was the Korean king trying to play a little game of one-up-you?
The Korean tiger looks more whimsical than some of his Thai or Cambodian counterparts.
Ines told us the story of the nobleman who was annoyed at never having been invited to the king’s parties in the reflecting pool area. He climbed the fence at night to enjoy the beautiful view for himself and was busted by the king. The king asked the nobleman why he should not be put to death on the spot. The nobleman did not have a great response, but he did have a parlor trick: he had memorized a 300 page book, which he recited word for word to the king. The king listened to the entire book and decided to make the man an advisor to his court. It’s always good to have an impressive trick up your sleeve.
We stopped at the Chinese zodiac and found our fortunes. Genene was born in the year of the monkey.
Greg is a dragon.
I am, of course, a snake. (Aren’t all lawyers snakes?)
We took a brief tour of the Korean Folk Museum, where we learned about the ancient customs of the Korean people.
A marriage bed:
When a child turns one year old, a big party is held. Various items are set out before the child, who is then allowed to pick: grab the book and junior is going to be a lawyer; grab the coins and his destiny is a banker; and so on. The ancient tradition continues today, only today’s child uses a computer mouse to scroll around and point to his or her future profession. It’s all in good fun these days.
Our third stop of the day was the antique market, an open air street market filled with souvenir shopping opportunities. We strolled up and down the street, but nothing spoke to us so we left Seoul empty handed, as far as souvenirs go.
Some young people had a display of “One Dream One Korea”, their dream for the reunification of the Koreas. They asked us to leave our handprints and a message. We left them our best wishes from the US. We hope they achieve their lofty goal, though it seems unlikely in this political climate.
At the entrance to the market, the young people stood with their “One Dream One Korea” placards, and a map of Korea was laid out on the ground. Any time a person walked across the map, they cheered and cheered.
These men were making a dessert confection from spun honey. The honey is pulled until it is in thin threads, much like cotton candy. Then almonds or other nuts are folded into the candy to make the dessert. We were headed to lunch, so we did not try any. I wish we had.
Ines took us to a real bibimbap restaurant, where the Korean staple was served in hot stone bowls.
The meal came with soup, many vegetable sides and kimchi, the traditional spicy sour fermented vegetable dish. This picture of Genene is very unflattering, but the food looks good!
After lunch, we were the walking dead. Our bellies were full of hot food, and we were running on four hours of sleep. All we wanted was to find a bed and have a nap. Ines could see our despair and called the hotel again. They agreed that we could check in at 2:30, so we needed one small after-lunch distraction. Ines had just the thing. She wanted to show us Seoul’s newest architectural wonder, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, also called the DDP. The DDP is a major urban development landmark designed by Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid and Korean studio Samoo. It’s all curves with a futuristic design. Some people think it looks like a spaceship. Others liken it to a funhouse. Each of the exterior panels is unique in size and shape and had to be manufactured specially for the space. Like the rebuilt stream, this project was controversial due to its cost and scope. It’s done now though, and the South Koreans are proud of the results. The New York Times featured the DDP prominently in a recent article about Seoul entitled “52 Places to See in 2015.” I felt very trendy just being there! It has 900,000 square feet of exhibit space and is used for design and art exhibitions.
Genene particularly enjoyed the interior of the DDP. There were many winding staircases and hallways, and they had many prototypes of chairs to sit in. Some were suitable to spin around in. Others could be lounged in. Genene tried them all.
At long last, Ines got word that our hotel room was ready. I hated that we were not doing this great modern city justice, but we were all just exhausted and wanted a nap. We were staying near the DDP at the Shilla, and it took only a few minutes to arrive. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stay in the Presidential Suite at the Shilla when they are in Seoul. We are not so fancy: ordinary people get an ordinary room.
The lobby area at the Shilla had at least 100 people in it, and I am not exaggerating. I felt like I had arrived late to the AWBD summer conference check-in. We noticed that there was a man stationed at each of the revolving doors with a camera pointed at everyone walking in. Turns out the cameras were infrared scanners. South Korea has had an outbreak of the viral disease Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the hotel was taking no chances. If the camera picked up the fact that someone had fever, they weren’t getting into the hotel. I thought it was a sensible precaution.
Ines helped us to navigate through the checkin, and we were soon in our nicely appointed room. Ines gave us some advice on where to have dinner and told us that she would see us in the morning and take us to the airport. She took leave of her walking dead clients.
We wasted no time taking a shower and getting into our skivvies. We discovered to our delight that our room had one of those fancy Korean Smartlets, also known as the smart toilet. It had more buttons than an Amish woman’s dress.
What do they all mean? Who knows?
The inside of the toilet was also lighted. Do I really need that?
I was afraid to use anything other than the basic bidet function on the pot. After all, I really didn’t want to bare my backside and press a mystery button. What if it grabbed me? Genene was much more adventurous. She is, after all, of the younger generation. Technology doesn’t frighten her; it emboldens her. Before long, she had most of the functions figured out, including the adjustable temperature of the bidet water, the “reach” of the bidet arm, and the like. It was hilarious to listen to her in the bathroom, giggling and squealing as she pressed each button. My favorite moment was when she exclaimed, “Mom, it’s blowdrying my butthole!!!” (Sorry, was that too much information?)
Anyway, we took a nice long nap and awoke in the late day, refreshed and, as usual for the Gordons, hungry. We were on the hunt (with our clean and blowdried backsides) for either Korean barbeque or fried chicken. Seoul is known for both. We chose barbecue at Song Won, a neighborhood restaurant down the hill from the Shilla. Again, we found that no English was spoken, but the menus had English words and, more importantly, pictures. We were able to make ourselves understood with gestures.
Greg had the Kloud beer while the charcoals glowed on the table.
Our waitress put the savory meat on the grill right in front of us, and the delightful side dishes came soon after.
We had not had much red meat in Cambodia or Thailand, and I guess we must have been missing it because we went to town on this meal. It was the highlight of our short stay in Seoul. We were proud of ourselves for finding a good restaurant and navigating the menu. We figured that any place that had been in busy since 1979 was probably good!
We strolled back through the neighborhood.
There was a steep flight of stairs back up the hillside to our hotel, and we stopped at the top to get this shot.
This was the view from our room.
We sat out our airplane traveling clothes and gathered our gear. Tomorrow we return to reality.
Monday, August 10, 2015
Our day began early. Inis and the driver met us at the hotel at 6:00 AM. We would have to get breakfast in the airport. The return trip to Incheon Airport took about an hour, and we passed over the mudflats. Ines described General Douglas MacArthur’s bold move during the Korean War to launch an amphibious attack at Incheon. Other UN generals expressed serious misgivings, because Incheon’s terrain was unforgiving. The entrances to Incheon were narrow and therefore easily mined. The water became mudflats during low tide and could easily trap a vessel. MacArthur explained that because the area was so heavily defended, the enemy would not expect an attack there. A victory in this northern strong point would cut off North Korean supply and communication lines, and a brutal winter campaign could be avoided. MacArthur got his way, and the attack was a success. Seoul was eventually recaptured by the South after a protracted land battle. Everyone knows how the story ends: with two Koreas. Those in the South are grateful to MacArthur that they have their democracy because without the battle at Incheon, the North Koreans might have won it all.
During some part of her discussion, Ines had mentioned “our brothers in the North.” Greg questioned her about this, saying: “Do you really think of them as your brothers?” Her answer was unwavering and unequivocal: “Oh yes, they are, quite literally, our brothers and sisters. Their government is stupid, and they are its victims, but they are our people.” She went on to describe, in moving detail, the issue of family separation between North and South Korea. I had never thought about this before. North and South Korea are technically not at peace; all these years later, they are at “cease fire.” When the borders closed between the two countries, entire families were cruelly separated. Husbands who had gone south for work and left their wives and children back north could not return. Siblings were separated from each other. Sons and daughters were separated from their parents. These people have not seen their families since the early 1950s! An effort was undertaken a few years ago to schedule family reunions. The government of North Korea is the sticking point. When the program began, 130,000 people applied for the chance at a family reunion. Getting the North Korean government to agree to a reunion is tricky, so they do not occur even once a year. When they do, the North Korean government grants only 100 applications. The reunion must take place in North Korea, for obvious reasons. If the good citizens of the North ever got the opportunity to go South, they might not go back. Ines explained that they know from intelligence that those families from the North who are selected are carefully “trained” in what to say and how to act. They must leave at least 1/3 of the food that is offered to them (to illustrate that they are not starving). They learn to repeat “I love it in North Korea.” They are given a new suit to wear so that they look presentable. Meetings are in large hotel banquet hall settings and are often awkward because the North Koreans know they are being watched by their government and even filmed. The people are getting very old, and their parting wish is often something along these lines: “Take care of yourself so that you can live until we can see each other again, when our country is one.” Ines showed us some youtube videos of the reunions, and they are heartbreaking to watch. The family members, now in their 80’s and 90’s, are together for a few hours before they are separated again, and they embrace and sob pitifully.
For the third time on this trip, I had tears in my eyes. I thought I wasn’t a crier! Greg cries at the Folger’s coffee Christmas commercial, so he was a complete goner. The tears were rolling down his face. As we got to the airport, Ines apologized for telling us such a sad story. We told her it was a perfect story. We come to foreign countries to learn about the people, whose lives are often so different from our own. The stories are not always happy ones, but they are real and meaningful.
The Korean Air representative in Siem Reap had given us a set of boarding passes for Seoul to Houston, and this turned out to be a huge boon. The checkin line was massive, but because we were already checked in, we got to go straight to the bag check line, which was much more manageable. Ines waited with us until we got the bags dropped. Incheon uses a slightly different procedure for checking bags. I am accustomed to simply dropping bags off and then racing toward the xray machines and gates. Incheon asks that you wait in a separate area for 5 minutes until your checked bags are inspected. In this way, if they find something they need to discuss with you in your checked bags, you are still close by. We waited the 5 minutes, and our name was not called, so Ines told us it was fine to proceed on to the gate.
While we waited, we commented to Ines on how well we had been treated by Korean Air and how beautiful their flight attendants are. She verified my suspicions: the ladies are selected based upon a beauty and style standard. They must wear their uniforms and their hair a certain way until they get inside their own home. The women are highly sought after by the men in South Korea, and it is a big brag if your girlfriend is an attendant for Korean Air. Boyfriends must take their women to and from the airport, and Ines says you can see the gaggles of men waiting outside. If the men do not treat their Korean Air women right, they can be “easily replaced.”
We said our goodbyes, and she taught Genene the Korean word for it. We made it to the gate in time for some pastries and hot coffee. The flight back was uneventful. We had another chance for bibimbop, which Greg took but I passed on. I had it in Seoul!
We left Seoul at 9:30 AM on Monday morning and after 13+ hours of flying, we arrived in Houston at 8:30 AM on Monday. We got back before we left! Global Entry was a breeze, although we got diverted to Agriculture because we disclosed that we had been in contact with farm animals. The Agriculture department was dead on Monday morning, and it took only a little time for them to xray our bags to make sure we weren’t bringing in a dead chicken or a pig’s foot. We stepped out into the Houston heat (which seemed like nothing) and grabbed an Uber ride from a young man who looked like he had been chugging Red Bull all night. He drove well though, and his car was clean and air conditioned. I have found Uber rides to be much superior to cab rides in Houston. I have been on many dangerous, hot, careening cab rides in our fair city, and Uber seems tame in comparison. It’s cheaper too!
We were home by midmorning, and Nala the wonderdog greeted us with squeals and whines of delight. The cats meowed incessantly and rubbed around our legs. I spent the rest of the day doing laundry, deleting or managing the 1300 work emails that came in while I was gone, and preparing for work. I will go in tomorrow morning and start “being real” again.
BACKTRACKING ON THE ELEPHANTS
I usually take my blogs in chronological order, but I have to go back to the elephant camp for a moment. Thai Elephant Camp had a photographer following us on our rides, and at the end we got a fully loaded DVD. I blog from an iPad, so I did not have access to the images until we returned stateside. Some of them are really good, so I must share. Also, because I am the photographer, I do not appear in the blog much, so these photos are a special treat for me (and my parents).
Here’s our Day 1 crew. I’ll leave you to identify the honeymooners, the French and the California boys.
When I die, I want one of these next three pictures sitting on my casket at the funeral!
At the lunch stop on Day 1:
We rubbed this elephant stem to stern with the black mud. Thai Elephant Home elephants have the best skin in Thailand.
When the guides showed the photos to all of us after the ride, these next two were particular favorites, eliciting much laughter from our group. I had no idea I was making those faces. I look like Grumpy Cat.
The mahouts made leaf hats for us. Greg looked particularly fetching in his.
My little girl is not so little any more.
I posted this one on Facebook, and several people have already said it should make the family Christmas card.
This last shot was taken just after our last ride. You can see the elephants walking away, back down to the paddock. You cannot see–but they are there–the tears in my eyes.
What more can I say? A 16 part blog with hundreds of photos–maybe I should just shut up.
No way! It’s time for random observations.
Things that tickle: elephant kisses and fish spas.
Immigration officials can ruin your day in a heartbeat.
The man reading the paper is always the boss.
Tea that is designed to “restore balance” to your body will taste like crap.
Planting rice is backbreaking work.
Smart toilets are fun!
Thai massages hurt.
A Bangkok driver needs 10 eyes.
An elephant makes a big poop.
Men can go to war over a two-foot tall jade statue.
Red ants and beef are delicious.
Roaches crawling on your feet are not fun.
Mangosteens are the second best fruit in the world, right behind the Arkansas Elberta peach.
It’s Myanmar, not Burma!
I would be remiss if I did not mention our travel agents at Asia Transpacific Journeys. We decided to interview them after researching on the internet. We exchanged emails and had one phone conversation with their consultant, Jen Boyd. She asked us detailed questions about what kind of travelers we are and what our expectations were. After that, she produced the initial itinerary, which wowed us immediately. It was just what we wanted! We never interviewed any other companies. When someone “gets you,” you go with it! Their services were first rate in every way. We never had to wonder what was going to happen next. Every guide and driver showed up on time and in place. If you want professionals to customize a journey to Asia for you, I recommend them whole-heartedly. http://www.asiatranspacific.com/
Genene is getting ready to start middle school in two days. She is going to Awty International School, which will be a big sea-change from life at our local public elementary school where she happily spent the last six years. Awty is popular with the expat community, and people from more than 50 nations attend the school. I hope Genene’s travels will stand her in good stead at Awty. We are all very nervous and excited about the changes. Can vacation help with education? I know it certainly is a lot of fun, but maybe she is learning something too, if only how to say hello in several languages.
Back to our journey for just a moment: the people we met along the way were so friendly and warm. In particular, the Cambodians keep sticking in my mind. How can they greet everyone with such warm, friendly and open faces when the scar of genocide is still so fresh? They speak of it openly, in the hope that it can never happen again. I hope and pray they are right.
Will I buy another shirt made in Thailand? I’m sure that I will, but I will never do it again without thinking of the man who sews them day in and day out.
As for Amparo and Polo, “We’ll always have Siem Reap.” (I love Casablanca.)
I hope that someday Korea can be one so that all the torn families can be reunited.
I hope that Borin gets his house.
I hope that TJ remembers me when I come to ride her again.